A Voice from the Stands: Breaking barriers

On Wednesday afternoon last week, I found myself at a country footy ground watching a group of young girls go through their paces on the track.

They ran laps, practised their tackling and did handball drills. And as the sun pushed towards the horizon, half of them turned their footy jumpers inside out and they played a 10-a-side scratch match.

Image: Kirby Fenwick

Their enthusiasm was palpable.

I thought of those young girls when I walked through the gates at Princes Park this weekend. The world has shifted for them. The landscape looks different now.

It’s something I keep coming back to, I know, but it’s something that deserves to be repeated a hundred times. And probably a few more times after that.

On Saturday, I was joined at the footy by a handful of friends. Most of our group had footy in their blood, but a couple had never been to a game before.

The Bulldogs-Blues games would be their initiation. And what an initiation it was. A tough and spirited contest that acted as the perfect introduction to women’s footy.

It was exciting to see them experience their first game, to answer their questions and watch as they became drawn in by the strength and skill of the likes of the Bulldogs’ Nicole Callinan and Jaimee Lambert, and Carlton’s Tilly Lucas-Rodd and Darcy Vescio.

It was some consolation to know that I’d converted a couple more people to the Bulldogs cause when my beloved Doggies missed their second win by a goal.

A single goal was a theme that ran strongly throughout the weekend. Each of the four games decided by six points or less, some in the most dramatic of fashion.

The Giants recorded their first win, at home in Sydney on Friday night, upsetting an in-form Melbourne.

What a wonderful moment for them and their fans. They fought hard and deserved the four points and their names are now forever etched in their club’s history.

It was a one-point win for the Pies in Perth, defeating a valiant Fremantle whose inaccuracy in front of goal kept them from their first win.

Though the story of the game is that goal from Alicia Eva who, in a run reminiscent of the Lions’ Kate McCarthy, pushed ahead of her opponents to cleverly get the ball through the big sticks.

But the match of the round was always going to be Saturday night.

The Crows taking on the Lions at Norwood Oval in Adelaide in a battle for the top of the ladder and an almost certain home grand final.

In a thrilling contest, the Lions won by three points and remain unbeaten in this inaugural season.

A few weeks ago, I tried to explain to someone why I felt so strongly about the AFLW, why I felt it was necessary to take a seat in the grandstand every week, to write about it, to talk about it, to buy every Bulldogs badge and to follow my team across state lines.

Growing up in the country, footy was the only sport that existed in my world. My Dad played and so did my brothers. The local footy club was a significant part of my childhood and adolescence.

I couldn’t say how many Saturdays were spent at the club or sitting in the car at away games; safe to say it was plenty.

But what took place on the field, at my local and at the elite level, always felt like something that wasn’t mine.

Regardless of how much I cheered my team or how many badges I pinned to my scarf, there was a barrier between me and this game.

This game that I had grown up with, this game that was the sport I felt most comfortable around, wasn’t for me. There wasn’t space – or not much space – for women, for girls.

Footy belonged to the boys, the men.

It was something I felt viscerally.

It’s something I no longer feel.

My relationship to this great game has irrevocably changed over the past few weeks.

When I think about those young girls training last week and the thousands more just like them pulling on the boots across the country, when I think about my friends who came to their first game of footy on the weekend and the way so many people – traditional footy fans and new ones alike – have embraced the AFLW competition, I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.

This game is mine, this game is ours, in a way it never was before.

There is no barrier anymore.

 

Kirby Fenwick is a passionate Western Bulldogs supporter who will be watching her side from the outer during the 2017 season, sharing weekly thoughts and experiences from a fan’s-eye view.